California looks for first Final Four trip
The Bears are two wins away from program's first semifinals
BERKELEY, Calif. -- There is no need for Lindsay Gottlieb to mention the Final Four every day. It's on the minds of every one of her California players now that they are two victories from that elusive program first and a trip to the Big Easy.
The second-seeded Golden Bears (30-3) survived a late-game rally by South Florida for an 82-78 overtime win Monday night in Lubbock, Texas and up next is No. 6-seed LSU (22-11) on Saturday in the Spokane Regional semifinals.
Gottlieb's message of late has focused on the idea that this special March run will go on until an opponent can find a way to shut down the Bears' balanced offensive attack.
''We didn't set a goal of we have to get to the Final Four, we have to make the Sweet Sixteen,'' Gottlieb said. ''I said, 'Once we get to the postseason, let's be playing so well and be that team that still loves each other and cares about it that someone has to stop us.''
It has worked well so far, even if Gottlieb is surviving on way too much coffee at the moment as she works tirelessly to study game film.
''I think one of our biggest goals this year in going to the tournament, of course New Orleans and we want to get far, but Lindsay said it a lot, 'Play 'til someone beats us, 'til someone literally shuts our team down,'' senior guard and scoring leader Layshia Clarendon said. ''I think when that's our goal, everything else will kind of line up, and if it's at the Final Four, the national championship or the next round's game, so be it, but play until someone literally beats us.''
After Monday's close call, Cal realized just how quickly things can change at this stage. The Bears squandered a 14-point lead late in the second half and allowed Inga Orekhova to make three free throws with less than a second remaining to tie the game at 70 and force OT, after Clarendon fouled her from behind the 3-point line.
Clarendon said she knew as soon as it happened, ''You have to let it go.''
Cal's theme has become ''Survive and Advance.''
''We know we made some mistakes. We know we made it closer than maybe we should have,'' Gottlieb said. ''We learned lessons in just how to manage the end of the game but also in our own resilience of saying, 'OK, it didn't go the way we wanted but we still fought back and got it done in the extra period.'''
Perhaps winning in wild fashion will provide Cal just the kind of momentum it needs to get back on the road and keep going.
This team has already accomplished big things - like the first 30-win season in program history and second trip to the round of 16. Yet the talent and makeup of this close-knit group of women has them wanting much more and believing full well they can beat anyone, anywhere, on any stage. With one more win, not only would Cal reach the regional final for the first time, but Gottlieb would also earn her fourth NCAA tournament victory since returning to Berkeley for the most by a Cal women's coach.
Cal has three starters scoring in double figures, while the other two average 9.2 and 7.2 points, respectively. And Reshanda Gray brings her production of 8.3 points and 4.9 rebounds off the bench.
Gottlieb calls it ''a coach's dream.''
''Without a doubt it's the most balanced team I've ever been on,'' Clarendon said. ''You can't stop one of us, because we just have that many weapons. And that is our strength this year as a program, completely.''
While ready to take the next step for a program that has long lived in the shadow of Bay Area and conference rival Stanford, Cal is still making sure to enjoy this time together and have a little fun.